Dopamine, what in the world is that? If you didn’t know any better and had to guess I bet you would say something along the lines of a drilling equipment company, or a kind of hardhat that could be a metaphor for running hard and fast. Dopamine has nothing to do with drilling, instead dopamine is something called a neurotransmitter, it has recently been written about as the molecule of more. What does it mean for something to be a molecule and why more? It is not a drug but instead a neurotransmitter, a chemical that your brain releases that lets you feel more motivated and crave something specific. What might this look like in practice? Here is a mining related analogy: Your name is suddenly Yosemite Sam and you’ve decided to pursue the gold rush out in California, you arrive, find an abandoned section of the landscape and camp there, gradually digging a deeper and deeper hole in search for gold. You keep going for weeks and eventually you become so frustrated angry and sad, there is no gold. Coming out to California you had the dream of going out to a beautiful part of the world and serenely dig and dig until after a few days you would try to push your shovel through the dirt and suddenly you would hit something hard, in this dream you find so much gold. The gold gets traded for money and you can finally be rich and happy and fat and lazy on a beach without a single worry in the world. Doesn’t that dream sound good? Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case in your situation, no, you’ve been digging for weeks and you’ve still got nothing but dirt. Where in the world does dopamine come into this story? Well the first place you would probably make a connection is the digging, the dopamine is the digging and so the more dopamine you have the more you dig. You’re getting warmer! But not quite, no, dopamine was responsible for the dream. The dopamine helped to create a really big, pleasant dream in your mind which, after you gave it a good think, evaporated leaving nothing except desire. This desire is dopamine.

Another way of looking at dopamine is that it is a contract you make with yourself where you say to yourself that you will not be happy until you get what you want. Ouch. That feeling that you want to work harder and feel terrible because you haven’t reached your goals? Dopamine. I am going to give this idea a second to sink in because you probably haven’t thought about this before. If you think back to the reason that you wanted to return or start to run it probably had to do with a dream or expectation that you set on yourself, this feeling gradually grew larger than you expected and after a little while you ended up being left with a frustrated, unpleasant feeling and now you’re stuck feeling deficient and wanting, aching to feel good again. That right there is dopamine, you made the contract with yourself, and this is what the terms feel like. Whether we want to or not humans are wired for this reaction. If we want something we also pay down the deposit by feeling bad.

One of the primary things that Buddhism teaches is to let go of attachments. The idea goes that by letting go of things that you are attached to, everything from your hair to your status to your name you come closer and closer to less suffering, by not wanting you don’t make this contract and therefore don’t feel bad. Although this idea makes sense and shows why monks approach life in the way that they do, if you are reading this you are likely not a monk. As such what I would like for you to consider is what happens if you succeed in getting what you want as well as what would happen if you don’t. From a neuroscience point of view one of two things can happen, if you reach your goal or intention and then you feel better about yourself, your goal was a success and you become a little likelier to reach for something bigger. Similarly, if you fail, your dopamine goes down and you are less likely to aim for something as big and tend to feel worse about yourself. This makes sense.

So then, you might ask, how should I approach dopamine? And more importantly how does this relate to running? Those are both fair questions considering that this content was written for future or current runners. The answer is simple: create more realistic goals, be conscious of your goals and keep setting small manageable goals that you can use to keep yourself moving forward. In order to do this should focus on doing two things better: to be kinder to yourself and to make every effort to become more consistent. Often, if you start running your goals are less realistic which means that you are not as likely to hit the mark, if you don’t hit the mark, you feel terrible and if you feel terrible is it a surprise that you’re less likely to follow through with your plan? I think it makes a lot of sense. So, what could be the better approach? To make two kinds of goals, one large goal like running a half marathon a year from now, and a more specific goal like putting on my running shoes and going for a short 10-minute run, today, right now. Do this, then do it again and increase the goal a little more. The first thought that will come through your mind is; but that’s too easy, it won’t make a difference why should I, there’s no point, I won’t do it. That’s the problem almost every beginner runner faces, your ego is bigger than your actions. Whether you want to admit it or not, you are not above going on a 10-minute jog. This right here might cause denial and frustration, that’s okay. Go do it anyways. There’s a reason the goals should be successive and small, because by taking this approach you are able to get more and more small wins under your belt and beat this overwhelming feeling of frustration and lethargy. Before you know it you will become empowered to do even more than the 10 minutes that you said you would do, and that will feel good, I promise.

You’ve got your goals figured out but how do you account for the most debilitating and frustrating part of being human: when things will end up going wrong and muddling up the plan? There is no easy answer but the only thing you can truly do is to laugh, offer yourself space to love yourself, recognize that you are human and that nothing is perfect, verify that you still care about your goal, and if you do, go out and get started running again. Great, you’re out running again that’s awesome! But before you start to run like you used when you were in tip-top shape please don’t forget to account for the inactivity and to restart gradually by slowly working back towards your original intensity so as not to cause injury.

Phew, that was a lot of information, heres the rundown:

· Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us desire and crave certain things, and it creates motivation to achieve our goals.

· Our brains release dopamine when we have a goal or a dream, creating a mental contract where we promise ourselves we won't be happy until we achieve it.

· When we don't achieve our goals, our dopamine levels drop and we feel worse about ourselves, but when we do achieve our goals, dopamine levels rise, we feel better, and are more likely to set and pursue larger goals.

· Buddhism teaches us to let go of attachments to prevent the suffering associated with not reaching our goals, but this might not be a practical solution for everyone.

· In relation to running, setting realistic and manageable goals can help control our dopamine levels and encourage consistency. Setting small, achievable goals can prevent the feelings of failure and help to maintain motivation.

· When setting goals, consider two types: a larger, long-term goal (like running a half marathon), and smaller, more immediate goals (like going for a 10-minute run today).

· The importance of being kind to yourself when you face setbacks cannot be overstated. Recognize your humanity and allow yourself to fail and then pick yourself up again.

· If a setback happens, restart gradually to prevent injury. Don't immediately try to run as you did when you were at your peak fitness.

· When setbacks occur, the best thing to do is to remind ourselves of our goals, take a break, and then restart when we're ready.